Why Poles don’t give themselves the trouble?

June 25, 2008

I read a very interesting post and subsequent comments by Island and his readers about the central mystery of the Polish character. It focuses on the possible mistrust of Poles to strangers as a cause for their rudeness. I gave it some thought, and here’s my thesis:

Polish people aren’t rude, they simply aren’t too polite.

Of course I agree that we might appear rude to foreigners, I can easily see that, but I think it’s also natural to assume that we have different standards of politeness. Naturally we’re talking here of the public sphere, and not private, but the clue is in our readiness for crossing the line between the two spheres.

I think that this all should be defined as “effort”. That is Poles are extra polite when they want to make an effort, and they’re cold when they don’t. This effort means an extra commitment in another person’s troubles and feelings. It’s sincere and real. It’s not a trifling thing, and it should be reciprocated. The need to reciprocate the effort is exactly the reason why we make it only for the individuals we know and care about, and why we don’t make it in any other case. By rule we’re not physically able to help everyone, so we have to limit the group of people to a reasonable number. In fact, I could say that Poles are not polite at all. The way they behave is an outside expression of the way they feel towards someone. Politeness to us might mean being one shade nicer than we really feel, but not more. Poles are not polite when they’re nice, they simply really like the person, and since they like them they are willing to commit.

In a very distant past, when they opened the western borders, I went to Paris with some friends. We were then poor like for the western standards. We could afford only some cheap rooms, metro and museum tickets, and some basic food. Otherwise we knew that we should be very careful not to spend too much. I went for something to a store, and on my way there I saw a boutique. I didn’t plan buying anything, but I was curious and wanted to see what they had there. I wasn’t there two minutes when this woman approached me, all in smiles, asking what I was looking for. I told her ‘I’m just looking’ – something that warns off a Polish clerk enough to send them to the opposite corner. She didn’t give up. She took the trousers I was looking at and told me to try them on. I dutifully did, all happy that they were too large and too long – something that in my opinion would make the woman give up. Well, no! When she saw me, she kneeled down and folded the trousers. That was too much for me. You may laugh, but I might starve rather than refuse a woman who kneels in front of me to sell me something. She was far too polite.

That taught me to avoid smiling clerks, to enter only large stores and never small boutiques, to leave as soon as a clerk begins a chat. Yet, once in Tunisia I did the same, well aware what I’m being drawn into. This kind man gave us a short tour around the town and took us to his fragrance store. We knew very well why he was polite, and we knew we’d have to buy something, yet, since we committed, we bought this absolutely useless stuff. Another time, in Vilnius, we were approached by an older man who told us some extra stories about the place – we took him for dinner. To Poles politeness obliges. It’s an effort that must be reciprocated.

I don’t want Polish clerks to be polite because that would leave me no room for refusal or freedom of choice. Till they behave like people at work I have a feeling that I don’t leave any mark on them. I can step in and out without risk, and go to another store without feeling that I betray them. But when they are polite, when they make an effort, I feel like their guest. I can’t refuse them.

So I think that when foreigners are looking at us they think that a smile doesn’t cost a thing, while we think it does cost a lot. The word namolny (importunate) may refer to a stranger who smiles too much.

It’s just as our language has a more narrow meaning of “friendship” than English. An English speaking person can say that they went to cinema with their friends. I wouldn’t say that in Polish unless they all were my friends. If I went to cinema with my friend and her boyfriend of many years I still wouldn’t make the generalization. He’s not my friend, even though I know him well and like him a lot. So I’d say I went with znajomi (acquaintances).

A friend is a person whom one can’t refuse unless for a very important reason, a close friend is one who knows our secrets, whom we trust as ourselves, who’s obliged to do everything in their power to help us, and vice versa. Our homes aren’t our castles where our close friends and friends are concerned. They have higher status than our further family (aunts, uncles, cousins etc.) A znajomy is someone I’m likely to help if it doesn’t cost me too much. A neighbour is someone I might help if it costs me little. A colleague is someone I hope won’t ask my help in anything too difficult (even if I’ve known them for years). A co-worker is someone I want to keep at bay and not cross the public/private line unless I truly like them (I hate when in some companies they demand that all of the co-workers address each other per ‘Ty’ – it’s much more difficult to refuse when you can’t keep someone at a distance). A clerk is someone I don’t want to feel obliged to at all. A stranger who is in one of the above relationships with someone we know receives a place depending on their and our own relationship with the linking person. Ask a Pole to help someone you know, and the first question you’ll receive will be how well you know the person. They’ll evaluate the needed effort and multiply it by the relationship factor. And the effort might really be of a considerable value. It might mean money, or a lot of our energy and private time that we’d like to have for ourselves otherwise, but we can’t refuse in many situations. It often happens that someone countersigns a bank loan for a total stranger, just because they’re a znajomy of one’s znajomy.

I think that we do smile, but a Polish smile is not just a gesture, it’s a form of commitment. By smiling we tell others that we like them and open ourselves to the possibility of being asked for help, and we’re not very good at refusing. The more a person has to offer the less likely they are to smile. The extreme example are the public institutions where the clerks just can’t smile if they want to do their job. Otherwise they’d be spending their working hours on taking care of people’s tax declarations. But go to them and say that you know someone they know, and they will smile and spend their time on filling the declarations for you. Yet, if you just go and smile they’ll think you want to coax them into extra work. Similarly, smile at a policeman and they’ll think you want to avoid paying a fee. But, when I once stopped my car to ask some policemen about directions, I did smile and they smiled back. It was nothing and they were glad to help. I was then accompanied by some Americans, and they were amazed that our policemen are so nice. Imagine that! Our smile doesn’t mean we’re polite, it means we like you, and if offered prematurely or in a wrong situation it seems artificial and false.

In the comments I saw some references to our much greater willingness to help each other during communism. (Note that Poles who read about our mistrust and rudeness automatically linked it to our willingness or unwillingness to make an effort.) Indeed, I remember many cases from those times when complete strangers received very crucial help. People knew that they wouldn’t manage otherwise, and it was a part of resistance, but it still was the case of knowing someone who knows someone else. Today they can go and buy anything they need. So we just placed colleagues, neighbours, and strangers one stage down on our relationships ladder. We don’t need to make that much effort anymore, but the clerks were smiling even less back then. They had too little to offer, and there were too many people who’d want it from them.

On the other hand I think that Poles don’t necessarily appreciate the western politeness (I say western because in general I didn’t notice a difference in countries like Lithuania, Czech, Slovakia, Bulgaria or Greece). The problem to us is that we can’t recognize when people are sincere and so willing to make an effort. They smile and they’re polite as if they liked us a lot, and it puts us out of balance, because we’re risking appearing importunate by assuming that they do like us as much as it seems. A Pole needs much more time to come to this point of a relationship where they would be ready to behave like that, and so we don’t know how to read the appearances. But then we fall into the trap and do too much, and the foreigners are shocked with all of the effort we’re going to, or feel that we trespass their private sphere. We simply can’t read the difference between politeness and sincerity of feelings. A Pole is likely to be happy to return home from their holidays abroad because they feel they don’t have to pretend anymore. Of course I’m not saying that other people are pretending, rather that we need to pretend to be so polite, because normally it means something else to us.


9 Responses to “Why Poles don’t give themselves the trouble?”

  1. island1 said

    I read this with great interest since it’s one of my favourite subjects, and one that I still haven’t got to the bottom of. It is very confusing for a Brit (I can’t speak for other nationalities) and I vacillate between concluding that Poles just are rude and concluding that they’re not and I’m just missing something. Everything you’ve said here reinforces my theory that Poles are very clannish–they treat people they know with politeness (although I think you have an inflated view that this is unique to Poland somehow) and people they don’t know with what appears to be outright suspicion.

    What seems to be missing is something I would call ‘civility’ or ‘common courtesy.’ This has nothing at all to do with people smiling at you in shops or people ingratiating themselves so they can get something from you. That’s the weird thing, the immediate response to openness is suspicion.

    What I mean by ‘civility’ is just a minimum degree of consideration for other people sharing the same physical or social space as you. It’s a whole load of little things that just amaze me on a regular basis. For example; at a road crossing you have no idea if the approaching driver is going to stop for you or not, I’ve watched Polish people and their default assumption is that the driver will not stop. There is no shared understanding of a common code of conduct – “I do not know this person so therefore I assume he’s going to try and trick me/take advantage of me/steal from me/ or run me over.” Another example: I go into a shop and ask for a particular wine, they don’t have it so I wait for the person in the shop to maybe suggest something else that they do have… nothing happens. I don’t want anything amazing from this person, I don’t even want them to do anything more than their job, but I get absolutely no help whatsoever. It’s weird, I would be physically incapable of just standing there and doing nothing while somebody struggled to peer over the counter at the hundreds of wines on display right in front of me.

    Well I’ve started ranting now, so I’ll shut up. It is immensely difficult to address this question because perceptions are so different. I am, however, convinced that there is a drastic lack of trust in Polish society.

  2. Sylwia said

    I agree that Poles are clannish. We always were. If you read some old stories from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth you’ll see that the Sarmatians weren’t any different. We become Poles when we are attacked as Poles or Poland. Then we unite and see the entire nation as one clan, otherwise we see ourselves through the prism of small clans. Take the people living on the territory of the planned Silesia city for example. They have nothing against living in one country, but living in one city is like uniting with an enemy.

    Again, I’ll argue that we have different codes of civility. When you’re in a wine shop the person there is civil. They think that allowing you to look at their choice of wine undisturbed is the best they can do. They likely worry whether they obscure your view, and assume that once you wish for their help you’ll ask, and they do hope you will, especially if their salary depends on sales. But they try to be unobtrusive. Many Poles would think that they’re being nagged if the person tried to sell them something.

    Polish clients do two things. Either they ask for help directly, or begin musing aloud on their choices. Then the seller reads it as an opening and feels encouraged to give their advice. Self-promotion is seen with a great deal of suspicion, but also the trade stigma in Poland has been much greater than in England, even though the English one has been greater than the one in the States. An English noble could invest in trade, a Polish one would lose their nobility if they did. That’s why we had so many penniless nobles, while there were younger sons in England who chose to make their fortune in trade in case of primogeniture. This goes back to the middle ages when England had to update their laws after Jews were expelled. In Poland usury, and any kind of trade were in the hands of Jews, and later also Protestant Germans, Dutch or Scotch who made our middle class. Primogeniture was very rare. There was maybe only a dozen of families who secured their property this way. Daughters were inheriting almost as much as sons, widows could manage their husband’s properties. In other words, everything was different, so we do behave differently now.

    The mistrust on roads is a completely different thing. There is a code, there is a number of rules as well, but we just know that they tend to be broken. When I listen to the US news I have a feeling that someone is going to shoot me any moment, when I listen to the Polish one I fear I’ll die on a road. Actually, if you’re going to die here it’s most likely in a car accident. Although the statistics look a bit better by now, the peak was 6 thousand deaths a year, while there is maybe a 100 people dying via murder. I know that the person coming from my left should stop and let me go, but if they drive 120 instead of 50 I know that they won’t make it, and the confidence in my or their knowing the rules won’t help me much when I’m dead.

    I’ve been reading a book by Kate Fox “Watching the English. The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour”. She’s an anthropologist, and in the preface she gave an example from Poland. She and her partner drove here by car, and, since his steering will was on the wrong side, he told her to inform him when it’s safe to overtake the cars before him. Soon, she noticed that whenever someone wants to do that other cars move to the external sides of the road, making room for the car, so she told him to go for it. At first he stopped short when he saw a big truck coming from the opposite direction, but soon he trusted her and they drove to their Polish friends in this manner. When asked, the host confirmed the rule she had observed, but the hostess said that it’s also very dangerous, because there are many accidents caused this way. I’m with the hostess. They were very lucky! I overtake other cars this way all the time, but there are many more elements one has to be conscious of when doing that. One should always make sure that there are no pedestrians or cyclists before the car one wants to overtake, because the other driver simply won’t run the people over in order to make room for you. If the car in front of you is a truck, most likely you can’t see anything. If there’s a junction you won’t see the sign. It’s better to give the other driver a hint that you want to overtake and wait for a green light from them. However, they tend to overestimate your car’s capabilities. Mine might look quite fast, but really isn’t. It won’t accelerate fast enough if the junction is close. Still, the only time I was close to death was on an Italian highway. Those guys use their car lights like a Christmas tree decoration. A guy who had his car parked with the alarm lights on suddenly joined the traffic just in front of me (without switching the lights off), and in a place where the road narrowed into a tunnel. I really think that if I didn’t have the Polish training i.e. don’t panic, check your opportunities first, I wouldn’t make it. The left side was occupied and, if I slowed down too abruptly, I’d likely have the truck behind me in my behind. In my opinion Polish drivers would have more consideration after all.

    I do think that Poles break too many rules, and speed is the least problematic of them. Many drivers don’t signal their intention of turning right. It leaves others in the dark. Especially on a circle junction where one can’t join the traffic if there are cars on it. It’d be so much easier if they bothered using the lights! It is a lack of courtesy, but also elementary imagination. On the other hand, there’s no problem with cars making room for an ambulance, which, I was told, would never happen so easily and efficiently in the US. So Poles can be emphatic when they can imagine there is a need, they just don’t imagine anything for the most of time. So here I agree that we’re very self-centred.

  3. island1 said

    I’d love to get into this in more detail, but I’m off on holiday. I’ll be checking back here to see what’s going on when I return.

  4. Sylwia said

    Lucky you! Have a nice trip!

  5. Kiri said

    Interesting to know.

  6. Pawel said

    Sylwia, you should write for Polandian!! We need your perspective, and your observation skills:))

    PS. How did you like that Kate Fox’s book?

  7. Sylwia said

    I could. How one does it?

    I haven’t finished Fox’s book yet. I read too many books at once. But I liked what I read so far, so I recommend it. The Polish title is “Przejrzeć Anglików. Ukryte zasady angielskiego zachowania”. She’s really good. She observes how stereotypes become created, their meaning and influence on people’s behaviour. One can learn many things about English people, but also about Poles, because it’s difficult to read the book without looking for analogies and differences. The language is light, with a good dose of English sense of humour.

  8. Pawel said

    Write your Polandian posts to polandianguest@gmail.com (http://polandian.wordpress.com/2008/04/10/want-to-write-for-polandian/)

    I read her book, although not all of it. I enjoyed it for the first 200 pages. But then the repetitions and her simple vocabluary get annoying, and as the book progresses Fox has less and less research to support her findings. Somewhere in half of the book she starts a boring enumeration of all ways of behaviour that she finds typical for each class. Which she does in a unpleasantly snobbish way. But how she researched all that? A mystery…

    At first however, I was astonished and liked the book. The bigger was my disappointment till the end…

    Let me know what you think when you get through.

  9. Sylwia said

    I’m not sure what to write about, but I’ll think of something.

    Interesting what you say about Fox. I’ll see if I like it to the end.

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